Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chief Mountain Moon & Stars

Chief Mountain: Orion to the left, Jupiter floating above, and a crescent moon setting to the right

I headed east to meet up with Comet PANSTARRS but, alas, I struck out. Our valley west of the mountains was forecast for 83% to 100% cloud cover all week. Over on the east side, the forecast briefly dipped down to "only" 58% cloud cover at sunset on the 13th. Comets don't come around nearly often enough, so I packed the car, rolled the dice, and headed for Chief Mountain.

I prepared myself with binoculars and sky charts and astronomical phone apps, but a cloudy horizon prevented me from meeting this unfamiliar, fuzzy speck of a comet. But life is all that stuff that happens while you're making other plans. For a few hours after sunset, I watched a tantalizing bit of sky that lay uncovered between the low, roiling clouds and the comforter-thick layer above. Oh, did I mention 50 mph wind gusts?

While clouds raced over the mountain's frozen shoulders, the moon and planets and stars put on a slow, silent show. To the north (right), a 5.5% crescent moon slowly dipped into the clouds and disappeared from view. Straight up, Jupiter stood out clearly and made darn sure you didn't confuse it for a star. To the left of Jupiter, the cluster of stars in constellation Orion clearly outlined the ancient hunter between passing clouds. The uppermost star in this constellation is the colorful Betelgeuse - and aging red giant, and my favorite among the few star that I know.

After a few hours of staring through a starry, moonless window, the wind tugged the clouds back across the entire sky - blanketed once again. I found my old sleeping bag in the dark and pulled it over my shoulders around 4:30 am, just as the first raindrops hit my windshield.

Rest assured that I'll be studying the cloud cover forecast closely for the rest of March. This month's comet is supposed to prepare us for Comet ISON, set to dazzle our skies in November and December...

Behind the lens: 30-second exposure with a Nikon D600 and 14mm lens. Part of my rationalization/justification for spending $50 in gas and losing hours of sleep was that I needed to test the camera body and lens, both of which are new to me and unproven.